Marcus Garvey and the UNIA

Historians of Africa and the Caribbean are coming to regard Garvey as a pivotal figure in the awakening of modern nationalist movements opposed to European colonial domination. At a conference celebrating Garvey's centenary held in Jamaica in 1987, Horace Campbell emphasized this very point:

The UNIA . . . was the most dynamic mass movement across territorial borders among the African peoples [during] this century. Now, one hundred years after the birth of Garvey and seven decades after the founding of the UNIA, it is still possible to say that Garveyism occupies a central place in the struggle for democracy, dignity and social transformation. (Rupert Lewis and Patrick Bryan, eds., Garvey: His Work and Impact [Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1988], p. 171)

No single black movement has represented a greater enigma to scholars than Garvey's irredentist "African Redemption." While many ideas that Garvey espoused---black pride, economic development, African independence---were not original, the way in which he expressed them, his incomparable ability to get people to listen, made him different. This talent was recognized early by a West African newspaper:

There are many who have said these self same things, but none have said them with such vigor, with such directness and with such persuasiveness as Marcus Garvey. (Gold Coast Leader, 29 May 1926)

Historians familiar with Garvey's career generally regard him as the preeminent symbol of the insurgent wave of black nationalism that developed in the period following World War I.

Although born in Jamaica, Garvey achieved his greatest success in the United States. He did so despite the criticism of many African-American leaders and the covert opposition of the United States Department of Justice and its Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI). As a young man, Garvey had preached accommodation and disavowed political protest, advocating loyalty to the established colonial government. His views, however, underwent a radical transformation shortly after he arrived in the United States in 1916. The emergence of the radical New Negro movement, which supplied the cultural and political matrix of the celebrated Harlem Renaissance, to a large extent paralleled Garvey and his post-World War I "African Redemption" movement.

Garvey established the first American branch of the UNIA in 1917--1918 in the midst of the mass migration of blacks from the Caribbean and the American South to cities of the North. It was also a time of political awakening in Africa and the Caribbean, to which Garvey vigorously encouraged the export of his movement. In the era of global black awakening following World War I, Garvey emerged as the best known, the most controversial, and, for many, the most attractive of a new generation of New Negro leaders. Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York has noted that "Garvey was one of the first to say that instead of blackness being a stigma, it should be a source of pride" (New York Times, 5 April 1987).

Black expectations aroused by participation in World War I were dashed by the racial violence of the wartime and postwar years, and the disappointment evident in many black communities throughout the U.S., Africa, and the Caribbean allowed Garvey to draw dozens of local leaders to his side. Their ideas were not always strictly compatible with Garvey's, but their sympathy with his themes of "African redemption" and black self-support was instrumental in gathering support for the movement from a vast cross-section of African-American society. Similarly, Garvey's message was adopted by a broad cross-section of educated and semi-literate Africans and West Indians hungry for alternatives to white rule and oppression.

The post--World War I years were thus a time when a growing number of Africans and West Indians were ready for change. In most colonial territories, Africans, like African Americans, were disappointed when expected postwar changes failed to materialize. The Garveyist message was spread by sailors, migrant laborers, and travelling UNIA agents, as well as by copies of its newspaper, the Negro World, passed from hand to hand.

In the Caribbean, what has been termed the "Garvey phenomenon" resulted from an encounter between the highly developed tradition of racial consciousness in the African-American community, and the West Indian aspiration toward independence. It was the Caribbean ideal of self-government that provided Garvey with his vocabulary of racial independence. Moreover, Garvey combined the social and political aspirations of the Caribbean people with the popular American gospel of success, which he converted in turn into his gospel of racial pride. Garveyism thus appeared in the Caribbean as a doctrine proposing solutions to the twin problems of racial subordination and colonial domination.

By the early 1920s the UNIA could count branches in almost every Caribbean, circum-Caribbean, and sub-Saharan African country. The Negro World was read by thousands of eager followers across the African continent and throughout the Caribbean archipelago. Though Caribbean and African Garveyism may not have coalesced into a single movement, its diverse followers adapted the larger framework to fit their own local needs and cultures. It is precisely this that makes Garvey and the UNIA so relevant in the study of the process of decolonization in Africa and the Caribbean. As if in confirmation of the success with which Garveyism implanted itself in various social settings, when Garvey himself proposed to visit Africa and the Caribbean in 1923, nervous European colonial governors joined in recommending that his entry into their territories be banned. Many modern Caribbean nationalist leaders have acknowledged the importance of Garveyism in their own careers, including T. Albert Marryshow of Grenada; Alexander Bustamante, St. William Grant, J. A. G. Smith, and Norman Washington Manley of Jamaica; and Captain Arthur Cipriani, Uriah Butler, George Padmore, and C. L. R. James of Trinidad.

Before the Garvey and UNIA Papers project was established, the only attempt to edit Garvey's speeches and writings was the Philosophy & Opinions of Marcus Garvey, a propagandistic apologia compiled in two successive volumes in the early 1920s by his second wife, Amy Jacques Garvey. As Lawrence Levine notes, "It is always unwise to rely too exclusively upon a collection edited by the subject, especially in the light of recent indications that the Garveys altered a number of speeches and articles to conform with his later views" (Levine, op. cit.). While the Philosophy & Opinions volumes served to plead Garvey's legal case, they also created a politically distorted picture of the UNIA, an image that for a long time severely handicapped research.

In this context, the Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers provides a full, objective account of the movement and its leader, as it chronicles how the movement achieved a global dimension by awakening the political consciousness of African and Caribbean peoples to the goals of racial self-determination and national independence.

Copyright © 1995-2014 The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project, UCLA